Thinly Veiled Dissatisfaction
The authorities in Belgrade are visibly dissatisfied with the European Commission’s latest report on Serbia’s progress. Key Serbian officials, from President Aleksandar Vucic to the line ministers, are striving for restraint in official statements and in contacts with European Union representatives, but when addressing the public at home their act is much tougher. In his first reaction to the report, Vucic said that it contained “true things,” but also “political” ones, pointing out that the part pertaining to the economy was more favorable because “there are no lies and cheating when it’s about numbers.” He thereby reproached Brussels for political bias and made it clear how unhappy he was.
Vucic’s media advisor Suzana Vasiljevic was even more explicit, saying as a guest on a TV show that a portion of the Commission report dealing with Serbian police brutality was unfair, “meaningless and hypocritical.” She recalled the brutality European police had exercised at demonstrations in previous years and wondered what would happen if the demonstrators in Spain, Germany or France attacked the parliament, as they had in Belgrade. The fact is, however, that during the demonstrations in Belgrade police brutally beat even the citizens who were not in front of the parliament building and that several journalists were injured, too.
Vasiljevic also expressed dissatisfaction with the European Commission’s positions on media freedom in Serbia, saying that the item pertaining to that subject was also unfair. She said that “in 2008 (when the coalition led by the now opposition Democratic Party was in power) there was not a single media outlet that was on the other (opposition) side.” The influential advisor added that “today there are portals, weeklies, dailies, and televisions which do not favor the authorities. We have on the front pages calls for murder, dead bodies that will float through Serbia, calls for the murder of children, attacks on the president’s family… There was none of that when the Democratic Party was in power,” said Vasiljevic.
However, assessments by domestic and international non-governmental and media organizations speak of a permanent decline in the level of media freedoms in Serbia, which likely significantly affected the views of the European Commission. Vasiljevic’s remark on the state of the media in 2008 is an attempt at making an excuse because, even if it were completely true, that could not have been a reason for the situation not to improve conspicuously over the past 10 or more years, or since Vucic came to power. It is true that there are a number of weeklies and portals in Serbia that criticize the government, but it is also true that the opposition parties and other opponents of the regime have no access to the mainstream media which serve as sources of information for more than 70 percent of the population.
Vucic and the ruling circles in Belgrade have probably interpreted the Commission report as yet another clear sign that solving the Kosovo problem will not in itself result in Serbia’s progress in European integration and that the requirements related to the rule of law, media and other liberties will not only remain in place, but will become even more important. The ruling clique is not ready to make essential concessions in those areas and will continue to seek “the most painless” ways for it to meet at least a minimum of European demands without seriously disrupting the autocratic system of government that Vucic has established by subjugating the parliament, government and other governing institutions primarily to his own, but also to the will of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party.
In his first reaction to the report, Vucic said that the criticism that he had used his position of president of the Republic in the June 21 general election, in which his party scored a sweeping win, was “political” and underscored that in 2008 there had been no objections to the campaign led by former Serbian president Boris Tadic. Therefore, this was another instance where the time of Democratic Party rule was recalled, with a glaring absence of argument-backed denial of claims of an unpermitted campaign by a state official in the last general election, during which he had by far the greatest presence in the mainstream media.
The Serbian president, besides showing dissatisfaction with the Commission report, also made it clear that in 2022, when regular presidential and Belgrade Assembly elections are due, a snap general election might be held as well. That is unusual, to say the least, seeing as the new parliament has not been fully formed yet, nor a new cabinet elected, despite the fact that a regular general election took place more than two months ago and that the Progressives won more than half of the seats, while the ruling coalition won two thirds.
The aforementioned statement sounds like an attempt to make it clear to Brussels that the authorities are ready to repeat the elections and potentially rectify the omissions pointed out by the European Commission, but it is highly unlikely that it can be hailed as a welcome solution. The European Commission did not ask for the calling of a new election, but rather stressed omissions in the electoral process. There is no reason for Brussels (or Washington, for that matter) to ask for a new election. On the contrary, a stable two-third majority is only an additional incentive for the EU and America to continue insisting on faster normalization of relations with Kosovo and on the acceleration of reforms in Serbia itself.
The ruling bloc has an extremely powerful machinery capable of leading fierce campaigns against political opponents almost non-stop, relying heavily on full control over economic flows, key governing bodies (from local to state ones) and the mainstream media. That is largely the foundation of their successful stay in power, and thus it is logical that Vucic and his Progressive Party are doing everything in their power to delay or prevent any essential strengthening of mechanisms of rule of law and any increase in media and other freedoms in the society.
From that standpoint, the idea of an early general election is not motivated solely by a desire to find some way to meet the demands set by Brussels and Washington to an extent, but also by a need to incessantly lead a campaign and maintain tension on the political scene. Elections, changes to legal regulations and similar moves are a form that is (for the time being) successfully utilized to make up for the lack of essential progress in the acceptance and implementation of EU standards. The authorities regularly aim to present such activities as important steps in the reform process, but are now facing increasingly vocal demands that, besides form, the actual implementation of the solutions being worked on be seriously considered as well.
An important step in the effort to maintain good relations with Brussels and Washington will be a new round of dialogue between the regime and the opposition, preparations for which are well under way. It can be expected that the authorities will try to eliminate the parties that boycotted the June election from the process or to minimize their influence as much as possible. Currently the most represented in the mainstream media, where the opposition is concerned, are the Democratic Party faction led by Branislav Lecic and the Serbian Patriotic Alliance led by the head of Belgrade’s Novi Beograd municipality, Aleksandar Sapic. There is even speculation that some of the officials from Lecic’s faction will enter into the new government, but that has not been confirmed.
In any case, the dialogue will be held and will be mediated by the EU and certain NGOs, such as the Open Society Foundation. The parties that boycotted the last election cannot reach for that option again because that would lead to their further marginalization, both internally and in the foreign sphere. At this time it is difficult to predict the extent to which the authorities will succeed in their intent to push to the forefront the Democratic Party faction and the other groups they themselves have, in fact, chosen. Further developments will also depend on the position taken by Brussels, which is why the opposition parties that boycotted the election are working to intensify their connections with the EU and the U.S. For now, that does not seem to be going very well for them.